After my crash and burn at the Leona Divide 50/50 race I thought I’d take some time to carefully pick the next race. It was between the Born To Run 50k (30 miler) and the XTERRA Malibu Creek 22k which I had run the year before. The BTR race looked like fun but I finally decided to focus on a course I’ve already run and to shoot for a PR on the XTERRA race.
Now that I’ve started using Strava.com to post workouts and track the activity of others I’m able to really quantify the work that I’ve done on the Malibu Creek State park trails. One thing that I noticed was that in races at the park I always seemed to poop out in the last two miles.
Another insight that I gained was from my climbs up the dreaded Bulldog road. Bulldog is a 3 mile climb with grades that go from 10% to 30% with minimal downhills. From Strava data and from their cool new “flyby” feature I was able to see that my times to the top of Bulldog were actually very competitive. There were other racers who I trailed by a mere 10 minutes and they would go on to beat me by over an hour. That meant that I was blowing things during the second half of the course, not during the big climb. This helped me come up with some useful strategies for trying to finish the race a lot faster.
The week leading up to the race we actually had rain in drought ravished California. It was glorious and it didn’t come down so much that we had to reschedule the race. We got the notice a couple of days before that the race was still on as planned.
By the time I got to Malibu Creek State Park, it was light and there was a dense fog over the surrounding mountains. This was more good news. Cool temperatures are my friend.
I got to the park pretty easy and got a nice parking spot. I kept my jacket on and picket up my race shirt. One of the racers was giving a volunteer a hard time about the white cotton race t-shirt and was holding up his phone pointing out that the race website said that it would not be a regular white cotton shirt. I thought, “kind of early to be busting the chops of a volunteer, ain’t it?”
I dropped off the race shirt and bag then did something I never do before a race. I actually started warming up. I ran by the finish line then ran up the last part of the course some and felt pretty good. This little warmup would help me be ready for the start and the first flat portion of the course. But then I picked up my pace a tiny bit and I started feeling the little drumming of muscles twitching on the back of my calves.
I quickly slowed down for a few minutes then tried to pick it up again and the muscles started twitching again. Most of the time when that happens it’s a warning that something very bad will happen. Every time that has happened I’ve strained a calf muscle or temporarily hurt it. During the Ojai Half Marathon I had that same thing go on early in the race and hit the pain mark. By slowing down and walking some I was able to keep it away and then go on to pick up the pace again a little while after. I would have to start the race a lot slower than planned.
I finished up the warmup and ran into my race buddy Marty Barrios and he introduced me to a couple of his friends. I think a couple of them were doing the course for the first time. I got back to the car and loaded up the hydration pack and was ready for the race.
The race director walked us over to the starting line and reminded us all that the race really begins at mile 6 at the top of Bulldog. This is the exact observation that I made after looking at my previous race data. The RD told a story about how he did the race and power hiked miles 2-6 while another person next to him “ran” up the hill at the same pace. He said that after they got to the top of the mountain he took off and never saw the guy again. Everybody reacted with a sad “awww.” “He finished the race, he was OK,” the RD told us all then said that we were pretty sentimental for being about to run a race.
The race started in two waves. I positioned myself towards the middle back of the second wave. The RD said go and we headed off. The first mile of the course is flat and has a slight downhill to it. I remembered my pulsing calves so I took it easy and didn’t worry about looking back to see if anyone was behind me. It didn’t matter, I was going to go as slow as need to keep the calves from going from pulsing to strained.
There was some mud on the path and one section where we actually had to take a tiny detour to avoid a large puddle of water that extended across the whole trail.
We hit the beautiful single track part of Crags Road and I took it at a nice easy pace. I passed a couple of people who were tentative on the wet rocks. I get a lot of energy from that part of the course and my legs just take off hopping off rocks and bouncing around obstacles.
When we hit the M*A*S*H site portion of Crags Road I kept on running although several racers pulled over to take selfies and photos of the Jeeps and signs that are in that little part of the trail. I’ve taken several photos there before so I didn’t indulge this time although I did during a training run the week before.
There was an aid station just before the turn onto Bulldog Road. They had water and Gatorade and I took a cup of Gatorade to help with the climb. I had finished off a GU gel a few minutes before that.
There were several of us in a little group climbing up Bulldog. We were at the far back of the whole pack at that point. We were all power walking at this point. We all started chatting and talking about different races that we’ve done. I think I was the only one in that group who had run the course before. The chatting helped keep our spirits up as the painful hike continued. It was still cool an the sun was peeking through but it wasn’t hot. Still, I continued to sip on water as we continued.
I had my GPS watch on so when the eventual and requent question came up asking “Uh, so how much farther do we have before we get to the top?” I could tell them exactly how far we were. We didn’t all hike up together the whole time. Every now and then I’d stop to catch my breath whenever my heart rate approached 165 bpm. After a while I’d catch up with one or another of the racers. I chatted for a while with Marisol who had done some trail races before but had mostly done road half marathons, 30 of them. Marisol mentioned that after this race she would have herself a good breakfast and I told her that I had toast for breakfast but that I would have a burger, fries and large soda after the race as my “recovery meal.”
I finally hit the top of Bulldog Road and for once it came earlier than I remembered. Usually I’ll be climbing it and there will be a turn and I’ll say “Ok one more steep climb and we’re home.” Then I’ll turn the corner and it will actually be three more big steeper climbs. This time I could see the racers running down across the mountain and I was pleasantly surprised.
The downhills were finally here and I made it down the first climb rather quickly, remembering to keep my form and not totally blow out my quads at this point. Next thing I know I was coming into the Corral Canyon aid station. I took more water, dumped some on my head even though I felt pretty good temperature wise. I took down a couple of cups of Gatorade then started looking for a good spot to do my business. There wasn’t much cover here so I just started back on the trail.
Just as I started climbing some of the moon rocks portion of the course, there was a guy who kind of looked like Scott Jurek and it looked like he was pacing another runner. I couldn’t really see his face but he looked to be the same height as Jurek and also had black curly hair. I think it was actually someone who kind of looks like him. I could be wrong.
I purposefully did not check my time until I got past mile 7. I was almost at exactly the same time as on my training run the week before. That wasn’t good or bad either way. I knew that most of my time would depend on the rest of the race and that could vary greatly.
I ran into Marisol again and we chatted more. We’d walk the uphills and run the flats and downhills. After a few of the downhills I started to pull away until I didn’t see her. I finally found a spot to do my business (which took time and required a flying hawk to finally get things started) and probably ended up flashing all of Calabasas canyon a mile below with my watertechnics. Sorry about that Bieber. I heard several people pass by as I was off trail and figured I was probably pretty close to tail end of the pack by that point.
Now that my bladder was happy I was ready to tear off downhills.I started cranking my way down for a good stretch then the pulsating started again. GrumpyCalves were trying to rear they ugly heads. At that point Marisol caught up with me again and asked if my calories from my burger breakfast had run out. I laughed and told her that the burger would be a post-race indulgence. She laughed and passed me up.
A little after that another racer caught up to me. I had passed her at the start of the downhills so she was a little surprised to see me walking. She asked if I was OK and told her about my calves. She offered me salt pills and I happily took a couple. I don’t think I was particularly salt-depleted but I had been sweating buckets, as I usually do. The pulsing stopped shortly after and I started zooming downhill again. I’m actually pretty good at downhills and was able to shoot by a few folks on this last part of the big descent.
Miles 12 – Finish (14)
At mile 12 we hit the end of the descent and there is a hairpin turn onto a portion of the Backbone Trail. As I approached Backbone I saw a mountain biker come up and also a woman with a cane. Apparently both had over shot the course turn and were about to turn onto the Backbone as well to continue the race. During the big descent earlier there had been about 8 mountain bikers shooting down the hill and I think that made a lot of racers really slow down and it was kind of dangerous. Now the mountain bikers were turning onto this very narrow and rocky single track. Having bikes and runners on the same track at the same time was not a great idea. The mountain bikers were also part of the XTERRA adventures of the day.
I made sure to pay attention to what was going on behind me but still wanted to push on as this is a fun part of the course. On this portion of the course I caught up with one of Marty’s friends who I had met at the race start. It looks like she had fallen but was with a friend and they seemed to be handling things OK so I slowed down but it didn’t look they needed any assistance so I kept on.
The last aid station is around mile 12.5. I splashed more water on my head and drank some more Gatorade. At this point I hadn’t eaten anything for probably an hour and I was pooped. I shook my head because I was repeating things all over again, being super tired before mile 13. I headed onto Las Virgenes Road which is a nerve wracking part of the course. Cars are literally a couple of feet by, whizzing right towards us as we make our way over the bridge.
I was very relieved to finally make it over the little bridge and back onto the trail at Piuma until I hit something and tripped. In the time it took to realize I was about to wipe out to the time I hit the ground I remembered what folks in the Trail and Ultra Running (TAUR) group always say and I was able to expertly tuck and roll to avoid doing a full trail-eating face first Superman move. I was pissed that I fell at mile 13 and was tired but bounced back and kept on the trail. I have the hardest time running down this little stretch of the park for some reason and walked most of it till I got to the final set of hills (referred to as the Angry Chihuahua).
As I got to the Angry Chihuaha, another racer caught up and he had a trickle of blood on his head. I let him know and he said that it wasn’t a lot so no biggie. He had fallen a couple of times throughout the race and had wiped out exactly at the same place I did. I took this mentally draining climb a couple of feet at a time and would stop whenever my heart rate got too high. I was started to get a little dizzy so I didn’t push it. I kind of laughed because I pushed as much as I dared but a lot of people passed me up during this climb. I had passed Marisol on the downhills earlier and she finally caught up. I hiked a little bit with her but my heart rate was redlining so I stopped again. I’ve learned that it’s better to keep my own pace sometimes while listening to my body.
Unlike on the Bulldog, the top of the Angry Chihuahua didn’t appear “quickly.” I finally hit the short downhill and was right behind the woman who had the cane earlier. She had an Ace bandage around her knee and I figured she had strained it earlier but was determined to gut it out and keep going. When we hit the last flat portion we both took off for the finish line a couple of hundred yards away. During my training run a couple of weeks before I had felt like a million bucks and during this stretch I put my sunglasses in, pulled my hat down and drove to the finish area like I was Jorge Pacheco crushing a race. This time the calves started up again.
“How fast can you go before our warning pains turn into a full on strain,” my calves asked.
The site of my running the slowing down and the racer with the bandage’s limping run could have either been comical or inspiring. One racer just in front of both of us actually took out his camera to take photos of this site. I could have pushed it more but really didn’t like my last calf strain weeks of recovery so I didn’t and finished just behind the tough as nails racer.
I finished officially in 4 hours 4 minutes and 25 seconds, 1 minute and 25 seconds faster than last year. Curiously enough, someone else had the exact same finish time this year. That’s possible because of the difference in clock time versus chip time. I haven’t figured out which of the other racers that was.
Tale of the tape
Distance: 14.0 miles
Elevation gain: 2,950ft
Calories burned: 2,923
After the race I was pretty gassed and made my way to a bench after picking up my medal and having my timing chip removed from my shoe. At last year’s Bulldog 25k which is the same as 95% of the XTERRA race course, my vision went bonkers and everything turned super bright. This year I sat and waited things out and my vision wasn’t too bad but it was a little bright.
I was curious so I took off my sunglasses and things were just as bright as last year. I put my shades back on and wanted to grab some food to get my blood sugar back on track but didn’t want to chance getting dizzy on the way to the food tent. I almost reached over and snagged an orange wedge from another racer but waited a bit longer then made my way to the tent. I found a bench that was in the shade and watched a few more racers finish then got my legs back and headed off for my post-run burger meal.
As I made my way home after some grub, I got a text from my sister saying that my aunt Josefina had passed away. That really helped put things into perspective. I run for fun and for exercise but there is much more to life than pushing one’s endurance limits. I went home, showered then remembered the fun times playing at my cousin’s house as a kid and my very kind, funny and patient aunt.